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The Defensive Rarity Of Jonathan Isaac

Contributor Francis Adu breaks down how Jonathan Isaac is such a special defensive prospect.

Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

For those looking at Jonathan Isaac as the next Kevin Durant, please retire your fantasies. We’ve unjustly burdened young, praying mantis-shaped forward prospects with Durant comparisons for a decade now. If Isaac lives up to his status as a highly regarded draft prospect, the brunt of the success will likely shown through his potentially elite multidimensional defensive acumen.

Rarely have draft prospects demonstrated the potential dominance as both a perimeter on-ball defender and an off-ball help defender inside the paint like Isaac showed in his freshman year at Florida State. While not a truly elite athlete, Isaac combines a 6’11” height & a 7’1” wingspan with nearly guard-like nimbleness to mirror and slide along with almost all possible opposing ball-handlers. Better yet, Isaac consistently brings the effort to get in a stance and engage ball-handlers.

Isaac shares the most common affliction of modern draft prospects of needing to add a good bit of strength to his frame to let him hold his ground when ball-handlers decided to press more into his chest to create space rather than going around his lengthy arms. Fellow draft prospect Jayson Tatum of Duke had success deploying that strategy against Isaac, despite Tatum weighing less than 210 lbs. himself. However, overall, it is Isaac’s rare agility and length combination that makes the 6’11” prospect capable of playing at small forward in desperate times or small pinches.

If Isaac solely had those versatile perimeter defense skills to use, he would still earn himself a spot at the back of a NBA rotation. Yet perhaps Isaac’s most enticing attribute is the ability to hold up on the perimeter while still offering rim protection help on the weakside. Isaac achieved a 6.2% block rate in 2016-17 (a rate that would’ve finished top-3 in the NBA last season) despite all his perimeter responsibilities.

Isaac has keen awareness of when to help disrupt a play aimed at the rim w/o leaving his man in a great position to catch a pass for open jumpers. The sense of timing also translates to his ability to attack shots in the air without having the elite size or leaping ability of many great shot-blockers. Isaac’s willingness to play bigger than his size as a rim protector and even afterwards as a tough rebounder opens the door to minutes as a center once he gains necessary strength.

If Isaac has any real worries, it is on the offensive end where Isaac struggles to tighten his handle and display enough elusiveness to drive to the rim with consistency. Despite signs of being able to maintain at least average shooting prowess from beyond the arc in the NBA, Isaac couldn’t take advantage of the threat of his jumpshot enough to attack more than the most undisciplined of perimeter closeouts.

This lack of ball-handling creation ability constricts Isaac to a strictly off-ball role on offense during a time with more and more forwards in the NBA offering a threat off the dribble. Isaac may be able to mitigate the deficiency with his usually dynamic cutting ability to the rim and flashes of a serviceable low-post game against small defenders. However, the path to becoming a true NBA star is difficult without the ability to successfully self-create quality looks off the dribble.

All that said, Isaac’s defensive potential has a great enough ceiling to bring star-level impact solely from the defensive end. Such a defensive foundation at both the perimeter and the rim can cover for a plethora of defensive deficiencies present elsewhere on a NBA roster. For example, Isaac’s quickness and rim protection could aid an offensive prodigy at center like Nikola Jokic enough to give the Denver Nuggets a reasonable blueprint towards future title contention.

Isaac’s mostly sound defensive fundamentals could also give an offensively gifted team like the Minnesota Timberwolves enough cover to buoy the overall defense to respectable levels. A rare skill set like Isaac’s can be the outlier needed to give an ambitious team a player impossible for opponents to completely neutralize.